When Democratic senators outlined policy priorities for their new majority at a State House press conference on Jan. 2, additional funding for the state’s beleaguered child protection agency was high on their agenda.
The current state budget has already allocated $1.3 million for 17 new child protection social workers, two supervisors and two executive secretary positions at the Division for Children, Youth and Families.
Despite those investments, the typical DCYF social worker is now handling 40 or more cases. That’s a big improvement from past years, when the caseloads were as high as 90 per worker, but nowhere near the 12 cases per social worker set as a standard for child safety nationwide.
A bill that failed in the last session put the annual price tag for reducing caseloads to 12-to-15 per worker range at $5 million.
When asked if Senate Democrats would support that kind of permanent increase in DCYF budgets, Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes of Concord said, “It’s important that we make those investments to protect our children. There’s no better indication of a society than how it treats its children. We need to step up to the plate on this one.”
DCYF Director Joe Ribsam recently told the Legislative Children’s Caucus that the agency would need to hire another 57 social workers over the next two years to bring caseloads in line with national standards.
Senate Democrats have filed a bill to do just that. It calls for $6.1 million over the next two-year budget (2020-21) for 57 new social worker positions and $2.4 million for 20 new supervisors.
Gov. Chris Sununu has been fond of dispensing surplus funds from the state budget on one-time grants for things like road improvements or school security, but has warned that he is apprehensive about expanding government and adding permanent position with no corresponding cuts.
On the other hand, the governor has also been committed to addressing the DCYF crisis, which has already cost the state millions of dollars in settlements.
Fate of business tax cuts
Businesses throughout the state have been wondering what direction the Democrats might take on business taxes, which have been steadily reduced in recent years under Republican majorities in House and Senate.
Now that the tables have been turned, there was concern in some quarters that the cuts would be rolled back. Those concerns were heightened after Rep. Susan Almy, D-Lebanon, incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said she planned to introduce a bill to repeal the cuts and bring the business profits tax back to 8.5 percent, where it stood in 2015.
As of Jan. 1, the BPT stood at 7.7 percent, after a series of cuts since 2015. And if Democrats have their way, that’s where it’s likely to stay.
Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, says rollbacks of existing cuts are a non-starter. “I don’t think that has any legs,” he said.
“I want the business taxes to stay where they are, and I’ve got a piece of legislation that does that. It suspends any further decreases, but it doesn’t roll them back.”
Without a sales or income tax, New Hampshire relies on business taxes for the largest share of general fund spending. Even though rates have been lowered, the revenue from business taxes has exceeded estimates by $106 million with more than five months left in the two-year budget.
Balsams’ final bid?
The end of the road for a $142 million renovation of the Grand Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch could be at hand, as developer Les Otten makes one more attempt to get government backing for an additional $28 million.
In August, Otten withdrew an application to have the loan guaranteed by the NH Business Finance Authority, citing unacceptable loan conditions.
Now he’s hanging his hopes on a bill filed by Rep. Edith Tucker, D-Randolph, that would enable the Coos County Commission, with the approval of the county delegation, to issue a $28 million bond.
Tucker’s bill would set the stage for creation of a special tax assessment district in Dixville so that tax revenue from the new buildings and improvements would be used to pay the bond, exempting the county from any liability.